June 2017

Native Medicines for New Mexico Pollinators


Melanie Margarita Kirby


Sol, agua, tierra. The combination of sunlight, water and earth gives us sustenance by nurturing the growth of plants. Plants exchange pollen—their life-giving force—and in doing so, give birth to seeds. These seeds carry on the stories of the plants, from one generation to the next. And while seeds are the stories, who are the storytellers sharing the pollen?

Those who tend to the elements are considered caretakers of creation. They are the storytellers sharing the seed stories. But before they are able to share these stories with their comadres and compadres and their communities, the seeds themselves had midwives. The midwives helped birth these seeds by transferring pollen from flower to flower.


Pollen is also part of the midwives, tradition. Pollinators rely on the exchange of pollen and its life-giving properties to sustain their health. They rely on clean water resources and healthy plants for nectar. They collect resin from trees and shrubs to seal their home with propolis. They share their foraged medicines—transforming them into liquid starlight—honey, among other raw hive products.


Their cultural traditions are passed down from one generation to the next, just like us Nuevo Mexicanos. Their stories have been of adaptation and resilience. But sadly, these days, pollinators are struggling. Between fluctuating weather, increased importation of unhealthy bee stock, pest and disease issues, and toxic pesticide, herbicide and fungicide applications, pollinators are faced with daily challenges that can affect their ability to endure. If their habitat is compromised, then their forage and diet will be insufficient. And this statement can be true for us humanos, too. If our habitat is compromised, and our fields and waterways contaminated, our delicious cuisine and communities will be unhealthy.

There is a profound interconnectedness between all species on this planet. Those of us who work with the land as caretakers of creation live it daily. We recognize that water is life and that along with it, the sun, the sky, the earth, the pollen, seeds, and the bees—all help to carry on our stories. Our pollinators need nurturing, too. Their stories of resilience are crumbling. They need caretakers of creation who can work with them, for them, and promote their local stories.

Farm-led medicinal herb research is currently being conducted through a New Mexico Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop block grant awarded to New Mexico State University’s Alcalde Sustainable Agriculture Science Center. Robert Heyduck, Horticulture research associate for the center, along with Todd Bates of New Mexico Native Plant Recyclers in Embudo, and I, Melanie Margarita Kirby of Zia Queenbees Farm & Field Institute in Truchas, New Mexico, are collaborating to investigate the benefits of Oregano de la Sierra—a native New Mexico medicinal herb that supports pollinator and human health and may have potential as a value-added product for area farmers.

Oregano de la Sierra (monarda fistulosa var. menthafolia) is a high-mountain bee balm that grows between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Todd Bates has been growing this medicinal herb for several years. He has been selecting strains and harvesting their big, purple flowers and leaves for drying. He has noticed that pollinators of all sorts are very attracted to this plant. He wonders if bees and butterflies are medicating themselves with nectars and oils.


This curious question has inspired the collaborative effort, which encouraged Robert Heyduck to enlist and assist scientists from various parts of the country, including Dr. Don Hyder, chemistry professor at San Juan College in Farmington, and Dr. Jay Evans, director of the USDA’s Beltsville, Md., Bee Lab. Their joint investigation will look at the medicinal benefits this native plant shares with both the bees and people.


A free public field day will take place in Alcalde and Embudo on June 16 from 9 am to noon, with presentations on the chemistry of medicinal nectars, pollinator health and identification of native pollinators. For more information, visit www.herb4bees.com.  n


Melanie Margarita Kirb, a native New Mexican from Tortugas Pueblo, is founder of Zia Queenbees Farm & Field Institute. She has been keeping bees professionally for 20 years. Her farm specializes in local honeybee breeding, pollination services and hive medicines. www.ziaqueenbees.com/zia




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